Chapter Twenty: Death and Rebirth
Cloud halted and looked upwards at the speakers even as Jessie worked. Barret raised his gun arm and scanned around. Cloud looked to Lightning, who drew her sword. "Hello, Lazard," said Cloud. "I don't suppose you had the guts to show up here in person? I'd love to chat."
"I'm afraid not," said Lazard. "At present, I'm on a plane back to Midgar to account for certain unfortunate developments on the front. That report you made has rung some alarm bells, but I was more than prepared.
"We won't be able to speak to one another directly today."
"Well then, why the hell am I talking to you?" asked Cloud. "Jessie, what are you doing?"
Jessie seemed to be banging her foot against the ground in places over and over again. '"I'm checking for a hollow sound."
"Here, pick here," said Lightning, picking a spot between two tanks. "It's a more enclosed space, so the blast should be focused downward."
"If we might return to the relevant question," said Lazard. "Cloud, I was hoping to dissuade you from doing something you'll regret.
"Very unlikely," said Cloud.
"Still trying to please our Father, then? Do you really think he's ever going to acknowledge your efforts?" asked Lazard. "How did he get such loyalty?
"Was it the speech about Neo-Midgar? Perhaps the race of human gods? Or the story about the Lifestream being an eldritch abomination.
"A very nice story. It makes you feel like you're a part of something much greater and helps you forget about his failings."
"That's the one," said Cloud. "And the answer is no.
"We're one of many, after all, and if he passed you over, Rufus must be his favorite. For all his talk of how one must earn respect, he's operating on pure nepotism.
"If he really cared, you'd have lost your job and career as soon as that massacre happened."
"Then you're aware of the source of my frustrations," said Lazard, voice amused. "Years spent diligently doing my job, listening to his grand visions for the future—his plans for the evolution of all mankind. Never taking bribes, keeping his armies working, committing only the atrocities he wanted. I became his greatest asset when Heidegger was sending his men into the meatgrinder.
"And for what?
"So some sociopathic brat with no record could be handed the Vice-Presidency? That is not how the hero's journey is supposed to go, is it?"
"It's the world, Lazard. Things don't turn out how you want them to," said Cloud flatly. "Quit your whining and do something about it."
Lazard laughed, and Cloud heard footsteps outside the door. The Genesis copies were banging on the door outside but halted. At least they'd go up with the factory. "I intend to do just that.
"I'd like to share a revelation I had about Shinra as an organization. It came to me when I was filing the paperwork to have Lightning dissected. Some paper-pushers had decided that she was too unstable to keep on the force. And Hojo wanted to find out what the problem was. He likes taking things apart to find out how they work, you see.
"And I thought to myself;
"This is not the sort of organization I want to be a part of.
"So I pulled some strings and made her into a minor celebrity. Enough to convince those idiots that her disappearing would be a problem. But that's only treating the symptom, isn't it?
"Make no mistake, Shinra does not need to be stopped. It needs to cease to exist entirely. Shinra is a cancer on the Planet, a plague. All the horrors you see around you were not made by my order; I'm just a commander.
"These experiments were authorized by Hojo. Oh, President Shinra doesn't know about the details because he doesn't want to know. If he knew about what the men in white coats were doing with his money, he'd be responsible for it.
"Instead, he sits in luxury, making speeches about new gods, even as he dances to the tune of the devil!
"I didn't make this technology. If I didn't use it, Shinra would have eventually. All I did was convince Hollander to come over to my side. I'm turning Shinra's own atrocities against it."
"The hell you are! You're taking those atrocities to the next level!" snapped Barret. "You could have shut these operations down, or sabotaged them, or pulled strings to get rid of Hojo. Instead, you've been feeding your own men into these things and massacring plenty more."
"They're war criminals," said Lazard with a shrug. "They burned villages, raped, some even tortured people. And for what? Money? So they could feel like heroes? They deserve this. They are assimilated into Genesis and forced to make amends for their horrors."
"And what do you deserve, Lazard?" asked Lightning.
"It doesn't matter what I deserve," said Lazard. "Someone has to cut out the cancer. And if not me, who else? Wutai was losing this war before I gave them Mr. Wallace's services. Mr. Wallace himself was simply wandering around, fighting skirmishes. I directed Wutai to him.
"I am not merely the best hope for saving humanity; I am the only hope.
"Who else has the resources to match President Shinra's industrial might? Who else has scientific minds to compete with Hojo? Who else can turn the weapons of Shinra against it."
"Nice speech. Do you recite it to yourself in the mirror every morning?" asked Cloud unimpressed. "Or did you just come up with it now?
"What about my comrades? The ones who never saw combat that you massacred! Men who you were oathbound to fight alongside?"
"What is an oath?" asked Lazard with a laugh. "Simple words.
"No more binding than the intention of those behind it. Concepts like knightly honor are a relic, a form of propaganda. Even in their heyday, they were but a means by which the rich kept the poor in line. There's no such thing as heroes, in the end.
"Shinra regards the oath I took to it as a means of controlling the unintelligent. The men who took it regarded it as a formality. Something to get out of the way so they can shoot things."
"I didn't!" said Cloud. "When I make a promise, I keep it!"
"Well, you're in the minority, I'm afraid," said Lazard. "And so you'll be taken advantage of, used and disposed of by those with more intelligence.
"Even so, Cloud, you are quite formidable. I could use someone of your skills and the skills of your accomplices. And I'd rather not lose this facility.
"Why don't you come work for me? I could use one of your talents against President Shinra."
Cloud looked and saw the door was beginning to melt beneath flames. Pausing, he wondered if Genesis would be caught in the blast. That could fix all these problems at once.
Then he thought about Lazard's offer and if he actually had good intentions. For a moment, he considered agreeing. Helping him tear down the horrific system that had made all this happen for the greater good. But then he remembered Aerith, and Biggs and Wedge and all the rest. Ordinary people Lazard would happily kill 'for the greater good.' And all of them doing their own little things to fight for the right.
"Why do all this to destroy Shinra?" asked Cloud. "You could have appealed to people's consciences! You could have spread awareness, countered the propaganda with the truth! You could have organized boycotts and convinced your men to defect of their own free will! With Angeal and Genesis, Sephiroth would have come over willingly. If only you hadn't been such a monster!
"That would require giving up your illusion of control. If you did that, you wouldn't be able to pretend like you were some all-powerful mastermind. You wouldn't be able to look down on all the little people and know all this was for their own good.
"You are President Shinra, Lazard!
"You're every bit as heartless and cold as the machine you helped set up. You're just a powerful man who helped wreck the world. And now you want to appease your conscience without giving up your power. Well, I'm not buying it."
"People are stupid," scoffed Lazard. "They buy into the lies of Shinra corporation without question. Why? Because it is convenient. If I entrusted the job to them, they'd botch it, and my chance would be gone."
Cloud wondered if Lazard had met many people during his time and how they had acted to deal with Shinra. Had he faced different experiences? Or had he simply had a different interpretation of the same experiences.
"Did you ever consider working with ordinary people?" asked Cloud. "Or are you just making excuses?"
Lazard was silent for a long. "...This debate is irrelevant.
"What is done is done. My strategy has already been initiated, and it is too late to alter it. You can choose to be an asset or be swept away."
And Cloud knew the right answer, even though he was afraid to make it. He looked to Barret, then Jessie, then Lightning. Finally, he shrugged. "I don't want anything from you, Lazard."
"Well then, I am very sorry Private Strife," said Lazard, voice amused. "I'm going to have to arrange for your honorable discharge.
"Lightning, I have your focus."
Lightning stood up and shuddered. Running away from Jessie, she sprinted to the far end of the room and put her back to the wall. "...Get away from me, get away as quickly as you can! Jessie, blow the hole in the wall, do it now."
Jessie leaped aside and activated her explosives. As she did, there was a bang and the make tanks shattered. A hole was plowed on the floor, and out of it surged greenish energy.
"Lightning, your focus is to kill everyone in this room and secure the facility," said Lazard.
"What..." said Lightning, eyes widening as she clutched her head. "I...
"Serah needs you to complete your focus," said Lazard.
"Come on," said Barret. "Let's go! Jessie, in!"
He and Jessie leaped in, and just as they did, Lightning drew her sword and charged at them. Cloud drew his sword and clashed blades with her. Locking swords, he parried and thrust, hardly able to keep her back as she slashed in a frenzy. "Lightning!
"Snap out of it!"
"Orders are orders," said Lightning.
And then a smoke grenade hit her in the face and exploded. Lightning fell backward, and Cloud saw Jessie at the hole. "Cloud, get in!
"Blow the explosives!"
The door caved in, and the Genesis copies surged in.
Cloud then knew at that moment that he had to act now, or all of them would die. But acting could kill Lightning. Even so, he drew out his Lightning Materia and focused it while running toward the hole. Leaping, he turned and unleashed the bolt.
At the same time, Lightning turned her gunblade and opened fire.
Everything went white. Cloud felt a sharp pain all over his body as he fell into the green light. A cold, wet feeling went over him, and he thought he must have hit something.
And then he landed hard.
Looking up, he saw no sign of the hole in the wall he'd come through. In fact, he could not see any hole at all. Around him was a walkway of ancient stone, and Barret and Jessie were some ways off. But there were no walls, only endless flowing energy. A little way down the walkway, he saw standing stones. There were thirteen of them, all centered around an altar.
"Cloud!" said Jessie, running toward him. "Did you do it?"
"I think..." Cloud felt that same pain, but it was a numb feeling. "I'm shot, he realized."
Jessie stared, and Cloud looked down to see his chest was riddled with bullet holes. His armor was ripped and torn and soaked in blood.
"Cloud!" said Jessie. "Hang on, just stay still, let me get my first aid kit! I've treated bulletholes before!"
"Jessie..." said Barret. "If you take those bullets out, it could make him bleed out."
"Listen, Barret, we found... we found files in my pack," said Cloud. "It shows what Lazard was doing; you have to... have to get it to Midgar.
"We can't let Lazard turn more people into those things."
"Don't speak; we'll get you better," said Barret, kneeling by him. "Come on, Jessie, let's get him over to those stones. This is Avalon, ain't it? Maybe someone can heal him."
Being moved hurt a lot. Cloud felt himself being dragged by the torso to the altar and laid on it. Jessie drew out her first aid kit; however, Cloud saw the crests upon the stones at that moment. Each one had on it one of the Knights of the Round Table, standing with their weapon readied.
And in front of him, Cloud saw King Arthur himself.
The Once and Future King stood stalwart and powerful upon his crest. He was so striking in the image that he thought that he stood alive before them. And soon, that crest began to glow before them, and Cloud saw him come alive. Around them, the energies flowed into a brilliant white, glowing around them.
His injuries hurt less now, and Barret and Jessie stepped back. "Who comes before the resting place of the King of Gaia?"
"King Arthur?" asked Jessie, voice shocked.
He was real.
Cloud had always wondered if he'd been only a legend. Or if perhaps his existence had been exaggerated or changed, but now he saw King Arthur. Not the Arthur of historical adaptation or the Arthur of mass media. This was no brutal chieftain who men rallied behind against a greater enemy. No centurion left behind by a failing empire as some stories went. There was no sinister aspect to him, which he had to justify with good results. No sin.
His features were noble and ageless, with the vigor of youth and the wisdom of age. And in his hands rested Excalibur, the Sword of the Planet. Looking on him, you could not deny his nature nor distort it by twisting it with the wiles of the world. Part of Cloud was in awe, and the other part was filled with hatred.
This was no man. And no god.
King Arthur was.
Barret Wallace, who had always been defiant and enraged, now looked empty, and he hung his head in shame. "I..." his voice was ashamed, and he seemed to be struggling to even speak his own name. "I am Barret Wallace, and I'm trying to save the planet."
"You bear strange regalia for a knight," said King Arthur. "And stranger deeds.
"And I sense blood upon your hands. You have done much harm in the process of your fellow men. And you have done so by stealth and deception."
"It..." Barret shuddered. "It's a war. I don't want to kill, but Shinra is taking over everything. And if I don't fight em I... they burned my town of North Corel. Killed everyone I knew and loved, and they're...
"They're doing it to others and worse.
"Someone's gotta stop em."
"But you enjoy the destruction you cause to them, do you not?" asked King Arthur. "You feel vicarious joy at watching men whose only crime is being on the opposite side suffer and die? As if they were the monsters who commanded them?:
Barret almost seemed on the verge of tears at the words. Cloud found himself in awe. What kind of presence was this. "I...
"Yeah, I know. I hated em for years and... and it's twisted me up inside. But... but that hatred is the only thing keeping me going."
"You know that to be a lie," King Arthur replied. "What of you, girl? Why have you come here, and what has brought a maiden to the battlefield?"
"I am..." Jessie looked to Cloud as if to remind herself he was still seriously injured. "I am Jessie Rasberry, and my town was destroyed by Shinra. Barret he... he saved me from them, and I've traveled with him since.
"I'm trying to save the planet too. My... my explosives can protect people."
"But they are a means of harm," noted King Arthur. "Do not think that your physical absence means the harm you do is any less your responsibility. You are responsible for your own actions."
"Please, King Arthur," said Jessie. "Don't question us any further.
"Cloud needs your help, he... he's dying."
"Cloud Strife?" asked Arthur before looking on Cloud. Now Cloud felt the full force of Arthur's will on him, the weight of it. "A son of the line of Shinra, the line of Mordred. His face is a mask for a thousand minds, each one seeking cold amusement. His blood is a line of murderers seeking only profit."
"He's..." Jessie stared at him. "You're not really..."
"It's true," said Cloud. "President Shinra is my father."
"Listen, Cloud isn't his old man!" said Barret. "Yeah, he took up with Shinra but... he's trying to help us defeat someone even worse!"
"He's not like the others!" said Jessie. "Please, can't you help him?"
King Arthur gazed upon Cloud, and he felt like his every thought and deed was being scanned. His bond with Tifa, the promise made his dedication and moving to imitate Sephiroth. These seemed to have his approval. His robbing of the store was judged, yet temped by his circumstances and desire to make amends. On and on, the life flashed before Cloud's eyes, and Arthur had it reflected in his eyes.
"There was a time when such a thing would have been the essence of simplicity," said Arthur. "Long ago, when the world was not so tainted, the Lifestream flowed through the hands of all men. In those days, the Cetra and ourselves intermingled. But as mankind turned to technology, the ways of magic were forgotten.
"The Knights of the Round Table were a fair time. And I told myself that because it cannot be forgotten, that fair time would come again.
"However, mankind has lost the way.
"Nobility and honor are now scorned by 'heroes' as outdated fantasy. To cheat and deceive and lie is to breathe in this world. My power is... diminished.
"But there is yet hope. Give me your sword, Cloud Strife."
Cloud reached for his sword, but his blood was flowing freely now, and he could hardly move. "I can't...
"Jessie, give it to him for me, please."
Jessie drew the sword from Cloud's hand and offered it to Arthur. And Arthur, becoming real in the past moments, too it in hand. Turning the blade to Cloud, he spoke. "Cloud Strife, you must swear an oath to me first. Swear that your Father's lust for power and tyranny shall die with him.
Swear that you will defend the weak, show mercy upon the repentant.
Swear that you shall speak the truth and sew retribution upon the wicked. Swear yourself to valor and the service to the right.
"Do you swear?"
Cloud knew it was his only chance for survival, and yet that somehow did not matter to him. It occurred to him that his life had really only been one misery after another. Perhaps leaving it would be better for him. Barret could look after the world...
Yet to stay, to continue as he had and foil the plans of Shinra and Lazard by his own hand? Wasn't that his duty? Wasn't that what being a hero was all about? To give up what you wanted for the sake of another. "...I swear."
And then Cloud fell back onto the altar. The breath escaped his body, and he felt his heart stop. Even as he did, he was looking down at his own body. Jessie grabbed him. "Cloud? CLOUD?!"
"...He's dead," said Barret. "You let him die!"
"Peace, Sir Barret of Corel," said Arthur. "And gaze upon the power of life incarnate."
Arthur raised one hand over Cloud's body, and as he did, he cut the hand with the sword he had been given. From the wound poured blood that dripped onto his wounds. As they touched them, they mingled, and Cloud gasped, finding himself rising up. His body was humming with energy, and he felt alive, more alive than ever before.
Putting his hands to his chest, he found no more wounds. And it almost seemed as though he went clad in white armor. Barret too, wore such a suit, though it was chipped and worn with age and cynicism and poorly donned. And Jessie as well, though it was of commoner kind, it was no less effective.
And it seemed akin to the knights in the pictures around them.
"This is my blood, shed for your salvation," said Arthur. "Avalon now lives within you.
"It's life or death is in your hands.
"Live, and remain true to your word.
"Now go, you have much work to do."
And as one, they looked up and saw a great staircase leading up, back into the world from which they had come. Standing, the three of them made their way toward it, almost on reflex. But Barret halted and looked back to Arthur. "...I'm fighting Shinra only so Marlene can grow up in a better world. All of my hopes... my dreams... are so that she can be happy without having to worry about people like me.
"I'm... sorry, King Arthur.
"If... if there's anything I can do, do to set things right, call upon me to do it. I'll try my best at it."
"Only to fight on against the unrighteous," said Arthur. "And to remind this soldier of Shinra of the oath taken here, Sir Barret of North Corel."
And they passed from Avalon as though it was a dream.